Just before the fire consumed the witch earlier that morning, she’d begged for mercy. She’d sworn she held no magic within her—that her accusers were wrong. But her dying screams fell on deaf ears.
Magnus knew those screams would haunt him for a very long time.
The reedy sound of the guide’s voice cut through the frozen air, thankfully drawing him out of the horrible memory.
“There’s a legend that the immortals once gathered here to work their elementia,” Vesper said, “protecting mortals from the darkness that lies beyond this world.”
Magnus was being led against his will by this small, round man with the rest of his father’s royal entourage. King Gaius had only recently learned of these ruins, rumored by many in the area to be as cursed as the barren soil of the neighboring kingdom of Paelsia. No one had built here since the original villa had crumbled to the ground centuries ago. Given that the grounds had an excellent view of the Silver Sea, Lord Gareth, the king’s highest advisor, had suggested the king inspect the site he proposed could become a new temple where locals could pray to the goddess Valoria.
When better to go for a tour than directly after a public execution? Magnus thought uneasily.
Vesper clasped his gloved hand over Magnus’s shoulder, making him cringe.
“Prince Magnus,” the guide said. “Just imagine what it would have been like here, a millennium ago. A magnificent and expansive garden of roses and lilies, well tended by a staff of gardeners for the lord of the villa. Much different than it is now, yes?”
With distaste, Magnus lifted Vesper’s index finger and flicked his hand away from him. “I’m afraid my imagination is as weary today as I am, since all I see is an ice-covered ruin—one I wish to leave as soon as possible. Father?”
The king, surrounded by three of his most loyal counselors, sent a glare toward Magnus.
Ah, yes. The greatest sin in Limeros: interrupting the king when he was involved in more important conversation.
As if Magnus cared. After witnessing the witch’s death, he couldn’t give a smaller damn about interrupting even the goddess herself. The last thing he wanted was to stand around in these frigid temperatures while everyone else discussed plans for the future.
“Yes, my son?” the king hissed. He wore a black leather cloak lined in fox fur. It was a near match for the one Magnus wore.
Magnus tugged at the coat’s itchy collar. “When will we return to the palace?”
“When I’m finished here.”
“And when will that be? In another thousand years, so we can see if the immortals will return here to prance around naked and cause flowers to sprout?”
The king’s eyes narrowed, and Magnus knew he’d taken yet another step over the line of proper—but, to him, irrelevant—royal decorum.
Vesper frowned. “I’m not sure if legend states whether they were naked or not.”
Magnus ignored the man as he forced himself to maintain eye contact with his father.
King Gaius nodded at his advisors and the two uniformed guards who stood nearby. “Allow me a moment to speak with my son.”
Everyone, including Vesper, bowed and moved toward the other side of the crumbling wall that had once been part of the great villa.
A shiver went down Magnus’s spine as the king drew closer to him, a sensation that had little to do with the near constant winter the kingdom of Limeros had to endure.
“I suppose you want me to apologi—” Magnus began, just as the king backhanded him across his scarred right cheek. The unexpected pain made Magnus bite his tongue hard enough to taste blood. He stumbled backward from the blow, landing hard on his knees.
The king glared down at him. “I brought you with me today because you’re sixteen now. Old enough to witness a witch die for her crimes and to join me on a tour of these ancient grounds. You are no longer a boy but a young man, one who should be ready to represent the crown in all ways necessary. Act like it. Do not embarrass me again.”
Magnus’s eyes stung as much as his face did, and he hated himself for flinching as the king raised his hand again.
He forced out the words through gritted teeth. “Apologies, Father.”
It was how such altercations always seemed to end between them—Magnus stinging from a blow and the king staring down at him with barely concealed disappointment that the many beatings he’d given his son only seemed to fuel Magnus’s insolence.
“We will leave when I say we leave,” the king bit out.
Without another word, King Gaius turned on his boot heels to join the others, out of sight of the icy gardens.
Magnus squeezed his eyes shut, gripping the ruins of a stone statue that partially protruded from the snowy ground. His life would be so much easier if he could be more like his younger sister, Lucia: polite, attentive, and studious. Everyone liked Lucia, and Lucia, seemingly, liked everyone.